The chapter provides an overview of higher education in Australia and examines the socioeconomic inequalities as reflected in student fees and assistance. Its prime focus is to examine if changes have occurred in socioeconomic inequalities in university education in Australia. The analyses examine two educational outcomes in Australia: completion of Year 12, the preparatory year for university study; and university participation. The analyses are performed on data from cross-sectional surveys of the adult population and longitudinal data from youth cohorts born between 1961 and the early 1980s. The effects of demographic and sociological factors, school sector and ability are examined. Additional analyses investigate whether students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are deterred from university because of the prospect of repaying a large HECS debt. From a policy perspective, these analyses lend further support to the conclusion that the Australian HECS system has not increased socioeconomic inequalities in university participation. The analyses showed weaker effects for socioeconomic background in the cohorts that entered university after 1990. Furthermore, there is no evidence that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to pursue a university education given their performance in tertiary entrance examinations. Although such a finding does not directly address the most recent changes to the HECS system, it does suggest that increasing the HECS fees by 25 percent for high demand courses is unlikely to deter suitably qualified students from participating in such courses. A major finding of these analyses is that the effect of occupational background on the higher forms of educational participation has declined in both the adult and youth cohort samples. There was no decline in the effects of occupational background among students eligible for university entrance, however among all students the chances of students from manual backgrounds participating at university have increased and their relative chances have improved vis-a-vis students from professional or other backgrounds. This change indicates increased opportunities for students with low socioeconomic backgrounds, and their communities are likely to be aware of this change. The fact that their relative chances of university participation among Year 12 completers have not changed over time would be less apparent. The findings show that there are socioeconomic inequalities in the Australian education system, and policies should be directed at reducing these effects and those of school sector.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/gary_marks/32/